September 28th, 2010
12:01 AM ET

Don't know much about religion? You're not alone, study finds

Odds are that you know Mother Teresa was Catholic, but what religion is the Dalai Lama?

How about Maimonides?

And - no Googling - what's the first book of the Bible? How about the first four books of the New Testament?

Americans who can answer all of those questions are relatively rare, a huge new study has found.

In fact, although the United States is one of the most religious developed countries in the world, most Americans scored 50 percent or less on a quiz measuring knowledge of the Bible, world religions and what the Constitution says about religion in public life.

The survey is full of surprising findings.

For example, it's not evangelicals or Catholics who did best - it's atheists and agnostics.

It's not Bible-belt Southerners who scored highest - they came at the bottom.

Those who believe the Bible is the literal word of God did slightly worse than average, while those who say it is not the word of God scored slightly better.

Barely half of all Catholics know that when they take communion, the bread and wine literally become the body and blood of Christ, according to Catholic doctrine.

And only about one in three know that a public school teacher is allowed to teach a comparative religion class - although nine out of 10 know that teacher isn't allowed by the Supreme Court to lead a class in prayer.

The Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life is behind the 32-question quiz, polling more than 3,400 Americans by telephone to gauge the depth of the country's religious knowledge.

Read CNN Belief Blog contributor and Pew adviser Stephen Prothero's take on the survey

"When it comes to religion, there are a lot of things that Americans are unfamiliar with. That's the main takeaway," says Greg Smith, a senior researcher at the think tank and one of the main authors of the survey.

Smith has a theory about why atheists did so well on the quiz - they have thought more about religion than most people.

"Very few people say that they were raised as atheists and agnostics," he explains.

About three out of four were raised as Christians, he says.

"They were raised in a faith and have made a decision to identify themselves with groups that tend to be fairly unpopular," atheists and agnostics, he says.

"That decision presupposes having given some thought to these things," which is strongly linked with religious knowledge, he says.

The single strongest factor predicting how well a person does on the religious knowledge quiz is education - the more years of schooling a person has, the more they are likely to know about religion, regardless of how religious they consider themselves to be, Pew found.

"The No. 1 predictor without question is simply educational attainment," Smith said.

The think tank also asked a handful of general knowledge questions - such as who wrote "Moby-Dick" and who's the vice president of the United States - and found a link between religious knowledge and general knowledge.

Very few people scored high on religion questions and badly on general knowledge, or vice versa.

People who were members of religious youth groups also did well, he said.

"Religious education is an important factor that helps to explain knowledge - people who participated in youth groups get an average of two extra questions right," he said.

Jews and Mormons were close behind atheists and agnostics as the group who did best overall on the religion questions, and white evangelical Protestants also tended to get more than half right.

White Catholics averaged exactly half right, followed by mainline Protestants and people who said they were "nothing in particular," both of whom got just under half right.

Black Protestants got just over a third of the questions right, and Hispanic Catholics just under a third, the Pew Forum found.

The survey was inspired partly by CNN Belief Blog contributor Stephen Prothero's 2007 book, "Religious Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know - And Doesn't."

Because the Pew Forum couldn't find any indication that such a survey has ever been done before, it can't say if Americans today know more or less about religion now than they did in the past.

And the organization doesn't claim too much for its 32 questions.

They "are intended to be representative of a body of important knowledge about religion; they are not meant to be a list of the most essential facts," the Pew Forum says.

Only eight of the 3,412 survey respondents got all 32 questions right. Six got them all wrong.

- Newsdesk editor, The CNN Wire

Filed under: Atheism • Catholic Church • Christianity • Culture & Science • Islam • Judaism • Mormonism • United States

soundoff (1,855 Responses)
  1. Yak

    I'm pretty confident a significant number of Americans would do just as poorly on any test you give them, math, English, logic, politics, etc. Jay Leno makes a living making fun of these people on Jay Walking. Credit a failure of the public education system and a lack of discipline on many levels.

    September 28, 2010 at 2:45 am |
  2. Drake

    I bet I'm not the only person who found these surprising results sort of... well... unsurprising.

    September 28, 2010 at 2:43 am |
  3. Tom

    This is good news. The fairy tale book is fading away from mainstream culture.

    September 28, 2010 at 2:42 am |
  4. DT

    With all of the violence in the Qu'ran and the Bible, you'd think Atheists would be all for it, since they can't get enough of religion.

    September 28, 2010 at 2:42 am |
  5. Antsache

    Vindication! As an ex-Catholic who abandoned the Church to the chagrin of many of his peers, this is really nice to see. I've had so many conversations with believers over the years and have always been simply amazed at the lack of understanding of even the most basic principles of the faith so many of them identify themselves with. Read the damned book before you start touting it as truth. Understand what, exactly, you are saying you believe in when you say "I am a ___." And come on America: as a country as involved in the international arena as we are, it's embarrassing that we don't know more about other religions, too. Even if you don't believe, educate yourself on this stuff, because most of the world DOES, in something or other. Mutual understanding is the only way we're ever going to learn to get along, and many Americans demonstrate an almost pathological desire to remain ignorant about things like this.

    September 28, 2010 at 2:41 am |
  6. ddharrison7606

    I got 9 out of 10. I guess going to a catholic school does have one benifit

    September 28, 2010 at 2:41 am |
  7. geckopelli

    When religion dies, civilization will begin.

    September 28, 2010 at 2:40 am |
  8. DT

    Atheist, If you're tired of religion, then take that smart IQ of yours and stay away from religion. Like you said, that makes you smarter. make us believe it.

    September 28, 2010 at 2:39 am |
  9. SmarterHuman

    Dumb rednecks have taken over this country and are driving it into the ground. You can thank the moron Bush for making stupidity "acceptable."

    September 28, 2010 at 2:37 am |
  10. aetna7011

    This has been, to be quite frank, one of the worst articles that CNN has ever written. The blanker conclusion offered at the beginning of the article that atheist scored higher on this test than other religious peoples is completely and totally bogus. If you look at the actual survey thanks to aaarrghhh for the link,(you noticed I've omitted the word quiz as this is a gross simplification of what was done) there is extensive background questioning to determine the demographic of the group taking the quiz. There is a wealth of data not presented by CNN. These high scoring atheists, what was their level of education? Were they raised in one religion? Were some of them disillusioned former theology majors? There is simply no good data. There is no conclusion that can be drawn about any one group being more or less knowledgeable about religion than another and that was just a blatantly inflammatory comment. The only logical conclusion that can be drawn is that, on the average, most Americans do not have a sufficient background in world history to understand other religions, and that some may even be stupid enough to not possess a good understanding of their own religion.

    September 28, 2010 at 2:36 am |
  11. DT

    I'm a Christ Follower, and I got 10 out of 10. Now come back with a real quiz.

    September 28, 2010 at 2:34 am |
  12. DT

    10 Out of 10 Right here ! These surveys on religious IQ are wrong.

    September 28, 2010 at 2:32 am |
  13. Frank

    Are people really this stupid? That quiz was painfully easy, so were the questions the article brought up. 10/10 right off the bat.
    Oh, and I'm a Catholic who wasn't raised as anything in particular.

    September 28, 2010 at 2:32 am |
  14. Dogen

    Name a topic that most U.S. citizens are NOT ignorant of... Only one comes to mind: Pop Culture (aka Entertainment). And so spells the demise of our little short-lived experiment in self-government.

    September 28, 2010 at 2:32 am |
  15. Storm Wooten

    Good, the sooner we get people to stop believing in these books of fairy tales, the better off civilization as a whole will be. Most wars are fought over religion. If not religion, then greed. Or greedy religions (Catholics for example) exerting their power over innocent people who just believe a little different (The Crusades). In my opinion, the Catholic Church is no better than the Third Reich.

    September 28, 2010 at 2:31 am |
  16. Michael Chesterton

    I find it funny that atheists seem to troll this belief blog and make such bold statements as "religion – the great artificial divider of men" and "religion is the root of all evil."

    Webster's dictionary defines religion as "a specific fundamental set of beliefs and practices generally agreed upon by a number of persons or sects." Couldn't this definition of religion just as easily be applied to the fundamental beliefs of Atheists? Absolute statements such as, "there is no God," are not just based on assumption, (at least I hope not for the atheist's sake) but are rather based on individual and communal "beliefs" in science, logic, and/or self-determinism. Therefore, an atheist is simply part of another sort of religion, that is, a religion that fundamentally rejects the supernatural and all other "religions". Sounds pretty "exclusivist" and "divisive", eh?

    Too bad atheists are self-contradictory...

    September 28, 2010 at 2:31 am |
    • catlover8367

      Oh, but you are wrong. The statement should read "there is no evidence of god". That's what the atheists say. Just like there is no evidence of unicorns or fairies, there is no reason to believe in them.

      September 28, 2010 at 8:56 pm |
  17. mepr428

    Of course atheists know more about religion than their mentally retarded religious brethren. You see, I will study religion and learn about it so I can explain to the mentally impaired why religion makes no sense. It's impossible for someone who only uses his/her brain as filling for that otherwise empty space called his/her skull, to come to the conclusion that something makes no sense because there is a considerable amount of thinking involved. So it's much easier to attribute miracles to the old man in the sky than to learn probability theory, and realize that a simple guassian probability density distribution is enough to explain a great number of miraculous events.

    September 28, 2010 at 2:30 am |
  18. Ec1warc1

    Most religious people are followers. They don't take the time to study what the purport to believe in. They just take someone else's word for it. The bible is full of contradictions, cruelty, murder, and slavery – all as accepted behaviors.Just pick up your bible and read a little. Start with Leviticus 25:44-46 or Deuteronomy 17:12. Very easy examples to find among many, many others. Oh, no! Those are old testament. Since Jesus was born, we don't believe in that stuff. Oh? Then why not read what Jesus himself says about the Old Testament: Mathew 5:17.

    September 28, 2010 at 2:29 am |
  19. Les

    I am an atheist, and true to the results discussed in the article, got 9 out of 10 correct. I agree with comments that the questions were not difficult – but that is a sad truth about how little anyone learns about other religions or their own. Indoctrination in a particular faith evidently leaves no room for learning about other faiths.

    September 28, 2010 at 2:29 am |
  20. Ronnie Harper

    If the bulk of humanity REALLY knew anything about religion at all, it would no longer be in service, having been relegated to the fiction shelf at the local bookstore. Religion is a pox on humanity, a disease of the mind. Religion is the core cause of all suffering and unhappiness on the planet. It does not alleviate the despair which is a natural condition of existence. Only a strong will and love of knowledge will do this, setting people on a course for true happiness, the aim of all people everywhere.

    September 28, 2010 at 2:29 am |
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About this blog

The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.